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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 8 Game Preview: Western Michigan Broncos @ Toledo Rockets

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In 2020, these two teams gave us an all time MACtion moment. This year, the Broncos travel to Toledo looking to establish themselves as the clear cut favorite in the MAC west.

Toledo v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

GAME NOTES

  • Time and Date: Saturday, October 23, 2021, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: CBS Sports Network (A valid cable subscription is required for viewing)
  • Location: The Glass Bowl, in Toledo, Ohio
  • Spread/Total: Western Michigan -2.5, O/U 55
  • All-time series: Toledo leads, 44-31
  • Last Meeting: In what was then proclaimed the Game of the Year in 2020, Western Michigan came away with a 41-38 win in front of the home crowd on Nov. 11.

When Toledo and Western Michigan meet, they always seem to produce fireworks. For these two contenders who are seemingly always near the top of the West, this rivalry has given us plenty of memorable games and memorable performances. The 2020 matchup was especially enthralling, with Western Michigan scoring two touchdowns in the final 45 seconds to come away with an improbable 41-38 victory. That comeback included an onside kick recovery and a fake spike turned touchdown, and it’s not a stretch to say that the final two minutes of that game were some of the craziest you’ll ever see on a football field.

It is within that context that the Western Michigan Broncos travel to Toledo this Saturday, and both of these teams still have a lot to play for. Western Michigan righted the ship last week with a dominant 64-31 victory over Kent State, and at 2-1 the Broncos still have every chance to get to Ford Field. Toledo, on the other hand, is hoping to find their form after losing two straight. Last Saturday’s 26-23 overtime loss at Central Michigan was especially painful, as the Rockets battled back from a 20-3 second half deficit only to lose in the extra period. Sitting at 1-2 in MAC play, the Rockets will need some help if they want to win the division. Regardless of that, for a team that has this much talent, a bowl game is still very much in reach.


When Western Michigan has the ball

At this point, the Broncos efficiency and success on offense has been well documented. Through seven games, Western Michigan leads the MAC in points per game (31.0), is second in passing yards per game (252.1) and third in total offense (438.4). Last week alone, the Broncos hung 64 points and 648 yards of total offense on Kent State.

The thing that makes the Western Michigan offense is the balance and the number of playmakers they have at the skill positions. WR Skyy Moore currently leads the MAC with 634 receiving yards to his name, but he is far from the only receiver you have to worry about. Corey Crooms has 422 yards and three touchdown’s to his name, and Jaylen Hall is fourth in the MAC with a 17.0 yards per catch average. These receivers have such gaudy numbers because they have one of the best signal callers in the conference throwing them the ball. Kaleb Eleby has been spectacular so far this year, leading the MAC with 1,745 passing yards through seven games. Along with that, he is completing a stellar 62.5 percent of his passes and owns a 12:2 TD -to-INT ratio.

The ground game has been up and down this year, but it really seemed to hit its stride last week against Kent State. The Broncos enjoyed their best game of the year running the ball against the Golden Flashes on Saturday, racking up 341 yards on 51 attempts. La’Darius Jefferson is the leader of the group here, but just like with the wide receivers, he is far from the only person to worry about.

Jefferson leads the team with 124 carries and nine scores, but Sean Tyler actually leads the team in yardage with 583 on a healthy 6.1 yards per carry. Tyler was especially effective against Kent State, turning his 17 carries into 169 yards and a score. Third running back Jaxson Kincaide also had the best game of his season against the Flashes, compiling 61 yards and two scores in only nine carries.

This Western Michigan offense is high-powered and has shown that it can score on just about anyone. That will be put to the test this week, as they go up against arguably the best defense in the MAC.

Toledo has been up and down this year, but very little of the blame can be put on the defense. Vince Kehres was brought in as defensive coordinator before the 2020 season, and he has worked wonders with this unit.

The numbers that this Toledo defense has been putting up this year not only hold up in the MAC, but they stack up well nationally. The Rockets currently lead the MAC in total defense, giving up 315.7 yards per game, ranking 25th in the country. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the Rockets also lead the MAC in scoring defense, giving up only 18.7 points per game (good for 16th nationally.) Statistically, the only defense that Western Michigan has faced that is better than this unit is Michigan in Week 1.

The unit is led by what may be the best linebacker room in the conference. OLB Jamal Hines is in discussion for MAC defensive player of the year, and currently ranks fourth on the team with 45 tackles. Two of the three players above him are fellow linebackers Jonathan Jones (48 tackles) and Dyontae Johnson (46). Terrence Taylor has been a force as well, leading the team and tying for sixth in the MAC with three sacks thus far this year.

While the linebackers may be the strongest unit on this defense, the secondary is not to be overlooked. Safety Maxen Hook leads the team and is eighth in the MAC with 50 tackles, and CB Chris McDonald is tied for second in the conference with two interceptions.

Senior safety Tycen Anderson missed the Rocket’s first three games of the year, but has re-established himself as a difference maker over the past month. In his absence, Zach Ford and Nate Bauer stepped in and proved to be trustworthy contributors. This is a deep, deep secondary with plenty of talent. It’s not hard to see how they’re in the top 15 in the FBS as far as pass defense.

Last week, this Rockets team went up against the high flying Central Michigan passing attack, who lead the MAC in passing yards at 284.7. The Chippewas were only able to muster 204 yards, with 32 of those coming on a double pass trick play from WR Kalil Pimpleton. Outside of one poor quarter against Notre Dame, that is consistent with who Toledo has shown us to be on defense this year. Even in the Rockets losses, the defense has kept them in games.

This all sets up an incredibly intriguing match up on Saturday. To put it bluntly, this will be a “strength on strength” match up. Western Michigan wants to spread you out and allow Eleby to throw the ball to his numerous playmakers on the outside. Toledo has been especially proficient at stopping the pass. Whichever one of these units can find the most success on Saturday will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.


When Toledo has the ball

As we just discussed, Toledo has been fantastic defensively thus far this year. Unfortunately for Rockets fans, the same thing cannot be said about the offense. While offense is usually a calling card under Jason Candle, Toledo seems to have a bit of an identity crisis on this side of the ball.

At the beginning of the year, Candle was adamant that they would not play two quarterbacks throughout the season. They had two signal callers on the roster that they were comfortable with in Carter Bradley and Dequan Finn, but their stated goal was to pick a starter and stick with him.

That has not happened.

Bradley started the first six games of the season, but Finn also saw a significant role in each of those games. (You may well remember Finn’s go-ahead touchdown run against Notre Dame in week two that gave the Rockets the lead with less than two minutes to go.)

Bradley got the majority of the snaps to start the year, but as the weeks progressed, Bradley regressed, forcing Finn to get more involved— and to eventually supercede Bradley.

Bradley has not been bad this year, completing 59.5 percent of his passes for 962 yards, four scores and one interception, but Finn brings a dual threat element with his game. He is not the passer that Bradley is, but his athleticism and ability to make plays with his legs in invaluable.

Finn took every snap against Central Michigan last week, notching his first career start against the team he was once committed to. It was a very up and down performance for the freshman, who finished the game 15-of-32 for 208 yards. He also ran for 43 yards and two scores, with the second tying the game up with less than a minute to go.

I say all of this to say, Toledo needs to figure out what they want to do on offense if they want to get back to a bowl game. If Finn is going to be the starter, having him throw the ball 32 times (as he did last week) is probably not ideal. Allowing him to run more of a read option system to utilize his legs could certainly be a way to get the most out of him. If Toledo is intent on a pass first system, Bradley is probably the better option at this point.

Unfortunately for the Rockets, this week is not a good week to have an identity crisis. The Western Michigan defense comes into this content full of confidence after shutting down Kent State’s high powered attack last week. The Flashes entered the game first in the MAC in total offense, averaging over 450 yards per game and nearly 240 yards per game on the ground. The Broncos completely stymied the Kent State read option attack, holding the Flashes to 362 total yards and only 124 on the ground. To put that in perspective, Kent State ran for 226 yards against Texas A&M back in week one and 150 yards against Maryland in week four. The only team to hold the Flashes to less than WMU is Iowa. That’s not bad company to have.

The Broncos defensive strategy all year has been to pressure the quarterback and create turnovers. The Broncos are first in the MAC with 22 sacks and sacked Kent State QB Dustin Crum five times last week. This spells bad news for the Toledo offensive line, as the Rockets currently rank 123rd in the FBS in terms of sacks allowed, having given up 26 through the first seven games. Western Michigan defensive lineman Ralph Holley and Ali Fayad are two of the best in the conference, and it will be imperative for this offensive line to keep them out of the backfield. That is obviously easier said than done.

Most of Toledo’s offensive statistics rank somewhere in the middle of the pack in the MAC, and the gameplan for this game will obviously depend on how the coaching staff opts to handle the quarterback position. If Carter Bradley is under center, this Western Michigan secondary has shown that they can be beaten. Toledo WR Devin Maddox is still a threat and has compiled 23 catches for 375 yards and three scores this year. Isaiah Winstead is a steady second receiver, and Bryant Koback has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield as well.

Attempting to pass on this Western Michigan secondary may be the best path to success for this offense, as the Broncos are currently first in the MAC in rushing defense, allowing only 119.4 yards per game on the ground. Bryant Koback has long been a pillar of this Toledo offense, and he is again this year, averaging 5.3 yards per carry on his way to 542 yards and five scores. With Koback and Dequan Finn in the same backfield together, the Rockets do have a dynamic run game.

This team has the talent to beat Western Michigan, or anybody else in the MAC for that matter. Through seven games this season, the offenses struggles is what have been holding them back. This week will prove to be a vital step in figuring out their offensive identity.


Prediction

I predicted a shootout last week in the WMU/Kent game (which turned out to be right, I just picked the wrong team. Kind of a big miss there.) To me, this game feels as if it will come down on the other end of the spectrum. For all of the issues that Toledo has on offense, their defense has been great through seven games. If any unit in the MAC can shut down this Western Michigan offense, it’s this one.

On the other side of the ball, the Broncos defense gave us a great performance against Kent State last week, and the Toledo offense has not been performing to the level that many hoped. I see this being a low scoring game, but I do think Western Michigan figures things out in the second half and comes away with a big road win.

Western Michigan 23, Toledo 17